Monday, February 25, 2013

These Are the Jokes

Last night, during the Oscar broadcast, whoever was manning the helm at The Onion’s Twitter feed wrote the following joke, which has since been deleted:

Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhane Wallis is kind of a cunt, right?

Quvenzhane Wallis is, of course, the 9-year-old star of the film Beasts of the Southern Wild, and so therefore the joke has ignited what I’m sorely tempted to call a “firestorm of controversy,” and once I can confirm this phrase has never been used before, I shall do so. Until then, you should know, if you don’t already, that part of this firestorm has involved Edward Champion of Edrants writing a sprawling, for the internet, rebuke of not just the joke, but of The AV Club staff’s unwillingness to take responsibility for this Horror on Earth. And this is a good place to begin, because our culture has become so literal as to not only not understand what the offending joke actually is, which is a fault that can be ascribed to oh, so many other people as well, but to also, in Champion’s case, either not accept or not believe that The AV Club, which is the non-satirical pop culture review website that is linked to The Onion online and bundled with it in the few print editions left circulating, and The Onion actually have nothing to do with each other, other than that superficial pairing. Champion posts sceengrabs from his Twitter conversation with several of The AV Club staff he engaged with, such as editor-in-chief Scott Tobias, as though Tobias’s logical refusal to take responsibility for a joke that neither he nor anybody who works under him, or who work under the people who work under him, had thought of, written, or posted, was somehow evidence of an ethical lapse, which in this case further implies, what? Misogyny? Probably! The truth is, no one outside of those who work for The Onion know who made the joke, because The Onion feed on Twitter is anonymous, as are all the satirical articles The Onion has ever published. The books The Onion publishes come with a masthead, but none of the articles have ever contained a byline, save those bylines that are, themselves, satirical.

So that’s what happened. And now everybody’s offended, and are demanding that something or other must be done about this, I guess. It’s part of the selfish, self-serving, and self-righteous policy of our current phase of humanity, American Edition, that if a joke offends either us, a group with which we identify, or a group whose cause we have chosen to take up, that somebody had better pay up. The problem with this, as I see it, is twofold, the second fold of which is far more immediate, as it has to do with the actual joke in question, and will be addressed in a minute. First, though, is the issue of “being offended.” Everyone’s going to be offended by something, is the thing – I’ve been offended by jokes myself. What I do when that happens is I either roll with it, or, if the joke teller is a professional and their body of work does not otherwise please me, I disassociate myself with their work. “That will be quite enough of that!” I will often say, and carry my time and money elsewhere. The reason I don’t attempt any kind of retribution is because quite a long time ago my moral rights in this regard were obliterated. I have laughed at jokes that I know full well would be offensive to others. So have you, and you, and so has pretty much everybody else who’s gotten so pissed off over a joke that they’ve attempted to rally the troops to take down the offender. If you don’t believe that such hypocrisy can even be possible, ask yourself why any time a comedian makes a joke about rape they get their spines ripped out, but meanwhile child molestation jokes flow free and easy whenever someone brings up Jerry Sandusky or Catholic priests. And I have no doubt some people will read this far and decide that really what I'm after is to be able to tell as many rape jokes as I want to without anyone getting all up in my face about it, but really what I’d like is maybe that more people attempt to maintain a little bit of consistency before their self-righteousness kicks in.

Because I know that will never happen, let’s get to my main point. The argument against the joke is that it has no context, or some kind of traditional set-up, that it is simply a blunt insult. I was arguing about this with someone who compared it to The Onion writer flatly calling Jamie Foxx a racial slur. The reason that's a false equivalency is because the slur would simply be an insult, not a joke. But the Wallis joke isn't a joke at all, it's been said. The Wallis joke could only work, it is argued, if some scenario was in place so that the reader would know that we are not to take it seriously. To me this sounds like we want to have our intelligence insulted, and anyway my initial rebuttal was that no context is necessary because what’s being said in the joke is so patently absurd as to make it unnecessary. It’s a non sequitor, not enormously different from saying “Dragons never make good mashed potatoes.” But while I still believe a joke similar to the Wallis joke could be defended on those grounds, the truth is that the joke is actually very different. It does, in fact, provide context.

There are two parts to the joke. The first part is “Everyone else seems afraid to say it…” The last word of the joke, and the punctuation – “right?” – are connected to that first part. The second part, “but that Quvenzhane Wallis is kind of a cunt,” is indeed the punchline, and it also, yes, uses a word found highly offensive by many people to shock a laugh out of you. Which is part of the way jokes work, anyway, some form of surprise being key, but anyway, the use of “cunt” is the part we’re supposed to laugh at. But we’ve been set up with “Everyone else seems afraid to say it…” This is the context. The writer has created a sort of character, one who believes he or she lives in a world where the terribleness of this 9-year-old girl is plain as day, but nobody has the guts to say so. The writer is imagining they’re in a situation where everybody is going to agree with him on this one. It’s taking as a given something that nobody believes. That’s the structure, the set up, and the context for the punchline, in seven words. That’s the absurdity. It’s not even new. But the joke is actually on the imagined version of the joke teller. They’re an idiot for thinking this, and they’re even more of an idiot for thinking anyone would agree with them. The subject of the joke, and the shocking word, were not chosen at random (because there's another context here, which is The Oscars), but Quvenzhane Wallis is not a target here.

There was a time when you didn’t have to break a joke down like this. It all worked subliminally, at least if it needed to, and if the joke was any good. I don’t think this joke is astonishingly good by any means, but I certainly think it works as a joke. And perhaps I’m fooling myself by suggesting that things are somehow worse now, that people are less able to “get jokes” than they used to be, and it’s probably just that social media has made it far easier to find yourself cornered by people who don’t. At the very least, the internet outrage is the only thing making this the story that it is (such as it is). But we’re a damn sight more willing to try to tear down someone first before trying to understand where exactly they’re coming from. We’d rather be offended than understand what was said, and how it was said, and how the latter informs the former. Anyway, it seems to have worked. After I started drafting this post, I found out that Onion CEO Steve Hannah posted an apology -- essentially breaking character -- in which he said:

It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting.

So basically, The Onion has never before posted anything near as offensive as that one joke. Go ahead and take a minute and browse their archives and tell me if you think that's true. If you agree, for fuck's sake, why??

Hannah also said:

In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.

Oh good. I know I'll sleep better knowing that one person will never again tell that particular kind of joke on Twitter, at least while employed with The Onion, again. Unless he maybe leads off by saying "Joke coming!" We can't be bothered with anything beyond the surface.

Anyway, lookit this. I’ve been reduced to writing about shit that happened on Twitter. May God save my poor soul.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Shlagoom

Budd Schulberg once said “I believe the novelist should be an artist cum sociologist. I think he should see his characters in a social perspective. I believe in art, but I don’t believe in art for art’s sake.” Well, I do. As a matter of fact, generally speaking there are few things a novelist could say that would make my soul wither more than this. An extreme reaction, no doubt, but there it is. I’m tempted to make even more radical “art for art’s sake” kind of statements, but please note I did say this was, however strong, still a general belief, because, as it happens, one of the few exceptions to this is Budd Schulberg himself. Not because his politics or social beliefs line up so exactly that I think “Well obviously this stuff is okay,” but because all of the things Schulberg believes should be a novelist’s job, as practiced by him, combined to make him an excellent anthropologist, not to mention – and this perhaps explains it – a fine writer.

All of these various writing jobs Schulberg took upon himself could also cause him to stumble, as in the “this is why he’s like this” section of What Makes Sammy Run?, which, not coincidentally, was also no doubt the driving force behind Schulberg writing that novel in the first place. But it could all pay off for him, or mostly pay off, as I saw firsthand when I recently read his 1955 novel Waterfront. If Budd Schulberg’s name and the word “waterfront” immediately form an association in your mind, you should probably also note that year of publication. On the Waterfront, the Academy Award-winning film he wrote, directed by Elia Kazan, was released in 1954. Schulberg was one of the many artists to win an Oscar for that film, but he apparently wasn’t thoroughly satisfied by that and chose to expand on his own script, to novelize it, essentially, and the results were published the following year. And it’s a fine book, I’m happy to report, though its basic goodness isn’t the most interesting thing about it. Referring to Schulberg’s novel based on his own screenplay as a novelization implies certain things, none of them good, so I’d like to go on record now and say that Waterfront (which is now in print under the title On the Waterfront, a fact that I find regrettable) does not embody any of the negative things you’d normally associate with movie novelizations. It’s its own curious beast. Watching the film again today, for the first time in a long time, I was surprised and fascinated by how much it felt like an adaptation of the novel Schulberg wouldn’t publish for another year. Certain events feel condensed now, character histories and motivations hacked to the bone, the environment, while rendered with beautiful precision by Kazan, nevertheless now seems less sprawling and less populated and less wild. Yet at the same time, when I read the “contender” scene in the novel, I thought “Oh well of course he put this in verbatim. If he didn’t fans of the movie woulda flipped!” Similarly, when Terry Malloy, the lazy, dumb, apathetic, but morally tortured mug played by Marlon Brando, takes Katie Doyle (oh, I should point out here that Edie, the Eva Marie Saint character in the film, is for some reason named Katie in the novel, a fact I also find regrettable, for rather obscure reasons), the young woman whose union-firebrand brother Joey is murdered at the story’s opening by the corrupt thugs who currently run the New Jersey longshoremen union around which everything whirls, Joey having been lured to his doom by an unwitting Terry (he thought they’d just lean on him a little), out for a drink and urges the innocent and pious Katie to knock back her shot, that whole business, with Katie/Edie turning green and dazedly muttering “Wham,” is a pure movie scene, but it makes it into the novel intact.

So it’s like that, sometimes. Meanwhile, Father Berry, the neighborhood priest who takes up the mantel of the deceased Joey Doyle and tries to unite and inspire the longshoremen who have been spiritually and financially pulverized by the corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), can at times seem like the lead character of Schulberg’s novel. On the Waterfront is entirely Terry Malloy’s film, but Father Berry – and Katie, too, at times – takes over great whacks of the book, as Schulberg focuses on his reaction to Katie (or Edie’s) rebuke that saints never hide in churches, and his rousing of himself out of his own apathy – apathy is almost a theme of the book – and actually do the hard job of being a priest that he’d originally signed up for. In the novel, this is all rather interesting, and depicted by Schulberg with a lot of passion. He quotes Saint Francis Xavier at length, for example, and Father Berry uses his teachings as his blueprint. The question “Can Father Berry pull this off?” almost overshadows “Will Terry do the right thing?”
As a result of all of the above, the novel could be considered a richer version of this particular story. The above, and stuff like this:

Loading and unloading is an art and a fever. The dock boss is on you all the time. Unload, load and turn ‘er around. The faster she puts a cargo down and picks up another, well, that’s where the money is. Do a three-day job in two and there’s your profit. Legitimate profit, that is. Oh, there’s plenty of the other kind for the mob who’s got the local and the Bohegan piers in its pocket. More ways to skin this fat cat than you ordinary citizens would ever dream. You take sixteen billion dollars’ worth of cargo moving in and out all over the harbor every year and if the boys siphon off maybe sixty million of it in pilferage, shakedowns, kickbacks, bribes, short-gangs, numbers, trumped-up loading fees and a dozen other smart operations, why, who cares – the shipping companies? Not so you could notice it. The longshoremen? Most of them are happy or anyway willing just to keep working. The city fathers? That’s a joke on the waterfront. The people, the public, you’n’me? All we do is pay the tab, the extra six or seven per cent passed on to the consumer because the greatest harbor of the greatest city of the greatest country in the world is run like a private grab-bag.

This is a good passage, because it encompasses a lot of what’s going on in the novel. This is from the beginning of the book, taken from several pages of such stuff, and while the sardonic humor of this prose doesn’t travel too far into the rest of the novel, save for in some very sharp dialogue, it gets across the very specific anger driving Schulberg. Father Berry was based on a real priest, Father John Corridan, and the corruption, murder, and apathy that made up daily life along this New Jersey piers was not invented – I know you all know this, of course, but the novel is much more specific than the film, is my point (you probably also noticed Schulberg’s use of the phrase “on the waterfront.” That happens in the film, too, a couple of times, but unfortunately Schulberg hammers it pretty hard in the novel, and perhaps he, too, wished he’d used that for the book’s title). The drunken lives of the longshoremen who would rather drink up the money they haven’t earned yet for doing jobs they haven’t done yet because the option to live under these conditions sober is clearly off the table, and to try to do anything about it would not only ruin them but would ruin their families as well, is really the meat of Waterfront. This is the suffering Schulberg wants to see end. The murders, too, obviously, but the murders are the exclamation points scattered around the rest of the tremendously sad and infuriating story. In the film, Schulberg and Kazan only had time to allude to these lives, but in Waterfront the main characters are constantly walking in and out of them.
What Waterfront doesn’t have, however, is Kazan. Or Brando or Cobb or Malden or Rod Steiger or Saint (Saint in particular, in fact, as she brings some fire to a character that, on the page, can sometimes make you want to tell her to fuck off. The following is an actual quote from Katie Doyle, stating her reaction to having the truth of life on the waterfront laid out for her by her Uncle Frank: “But Uncle Frank, in civics we learn…in America…” Don’t worry, though, there’s not a lot of that). The significance of On the Waterfront in Elia Kazan’s life and career cannot be understated, and Kazan himself confirmed that in his mind the film was, at least in part, a defense of his own decision to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. That’s the kind of thing that will keep Ed Harris from standing up for you when you get an honorary Oscar, but even knowing this Kazan stuck to his guns. If you care to know, I am entirely okay with this. I also do not find this element of subtext to On the Waterfront uninteresting, or something about which too much is made, or not worth hashing out, even if it’s hashed out to a standstill, which it undeniably would. But the truth is, while watching On the Waterfront today, what I was entirely swept up in was the “art for art’s sake” element to it. On the Waterfront hardly seems like the kind of film to inspire that kind of rumination, but it did in me, and one of the things I wondered about was why this film isn’t typically considered film noir. I’m hardly the first person to wonder about this, or to say “Hey maybe it should be” or anything, but look at this:
What kind of movie are you looking at here? Plus, all the crime. On the Waterfront would not be the only film noir Elia Kazan ever made, and it would by no means be the only socially conscious film noir ever made. And boy does it land squarely in that sweet spot, with the questions of morality, corruption, murder, and a man’s conscience on the brink. Chronologically, even, the early 1950s being quite a fruitful period for the genre. It’s a magnificent piece of filmmaking, in any case – Kazan makes things look perpetually damp and chilly, the sky eternally white and threatening. The look of the film, which Kazan devised with cinematographer Boris Kaufman, now appears to have been the inspiration for Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence from 1961 and Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls from 1962 – there’s a quality to the grayness in all three that’ quite similar, and evocative of lives lived on the edge of water. That’s kind of key to On the Waterfront and Carnival of Souls, less so to Blast of Silence, that is, until that film’s climax, when suddenly water and death, or anyway violence, eternally re-link the three movies together.

Plus, as we understand him, Kazan gave us Brando. The amazing thing I realized today as I watched is, well, first: you know how one of the qualities of great acting, or the results on the audience of great acting, is that you forget about the actor and believe you’re simply watching the character? Certain qualifiers have to be put in place in order for this to work, not least that it is I believe neurologically impossible for a healthy and sane person to actually do this, as well as that considering this to be the one true goal of acting is to restrict the kind of acting you can enjoy, but anyway, we all understand what’s being gotten at here, and can acknowledge that in many, many cinematic circumstances, the kind of acting being described is to be hoped for. With that understanding, the amazing thing I realized while watching On the Waterfront today is that at certain times Marlon Brando, the most famous American actor in his most famous film role in one of the most famous films ever made is making me think more about Terry Malloy than about him. Take that scene where he takes Edie out for a drink, and he's telling her his story, and says “my dad got bumped off, never mind how.” That “never mind how” is absolutely brilliant, because there’s a pause just before it, and among the many things you can intuit Terry is thinking about in that pause are the way his father died, how he doesn’t like thinking about it, how he doesn’t want to tell Edie about it and so he should cut off her natural question before she can ask it, how, “bumped off” implying homicide as it does, Terry’s moral compass has just gone crazy again, because who “bumped off” his dad “on the waterfront” if not some version of the men he now (kinda) works for? And so on. Brando’s performance here is positively overflowing with that kind of thing. He’s Terry Malloy, and that’s it.
This will count as a spoiler, I guess, but Terry Malloy’s fate in the novel is somewhat different from what he faces in the film. Schulberg’s optimism, what there was of it, may have calcified in the interim, I don’t know. But Waterfront ends with quite the kick in the nuts. One of the results of this is that while Waterfront may sometimes be Father Berry’s book, and it may sometimes be Katie’s book (Johnny Friendly also appears less, and after an initial flurry of scenes setting up him and his henchmen, he becomes more of a shadow hanging over everything) it finally is, as the film is, Terry Malloy’s. In Malloy, Schulberg created a truly unique character. The versions found in both the book and the film isn’t some secretly wise young man, some still-waters-run-deep brooder. He’s a genuinely dumb guy. If he honestly believed Joey Doyle was only going to be leaned on, that’s a dumb thing to believe. And how often are our heroes so stupid? Father Berry and Katie/Edie cut this somewhat (more Edie than Katie, in my view) and in fact as fascinating, and even as crucial, as the additional material about Father Berry was to Waterfront, there is a fascination for the reader in finding their (my) wagon, narratively and morally speaking, hitched to such a lazy doofus. And he’s not charmingly or sweetly dumb – he’s dumb like real people are dumb. His moral awakening is very basic, and is understood by him on a very basic level. Even so, there’s never a point when he’s not also confused about something. Schulberg created him, and Kazan and Brando planted him right there on his roof with his pigeons. And not for nothing, dumb as he is, he’s capable of standing up. Or, depending on which version of the story we’re talking about here, trying to.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


In The Kid With a Bike, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's 2011 film that was just released to DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion, a young boy name Cyril (Thomas Doret) lives in a foster home, and he spends most of his waking hours trying to set up some kind of contact with his deadbeat dad (Jeremie Renier). But the manager of the apartment building where his dad used to live -- and, it's assumed, Cyril used to live with him -- insists that the man has moved away, and left no forwarding address. Some investigation also turns up the fact that his father sold his son's bike. None of this slows Cyril down, whose whole life really has been given over to finding his dad and being his son again, so that much of the early sections of the film are comprised of Cyril literally fighting to get loose of the foster home (which is staffed with professional, caring, but frustrated workers) so that he can alternately pepper anyone who might reasonably know anything about his father's whereabouts with the same questions he's clearly asked them many times over, and with staring through windows, craning his head around corners, knocking on doors, waiting. He's angry and confused, but when he's not scratching his way free from somebody or other, his patience is jaw-dropping.

The fact that the appearance of Cyril's father in the film is entirely unceremonious should not surprise anyone familiar with the work of the Dardenne brothers. The Dardennes' films are both among the most heart-breaking being made today, and the, well...the least ceremonious. When, with Samantha (Cecile de France), a kind woman who, after being caught up in one of Cyril's scuffles with foster home personnel, takes a caring interest in the boy and not only gets his bike back but also agrees to foster him in her home on weekends, Cyril appears at the door of the restaurant where his father is working, we're shown Samantha and Cyril waiting outside until the door opens, and we only see Guy, the father, in part, as the camera is angled in such a way that the view of the doorway has been cut to a sliver. When Cyril goes inside, the camera is as disinterested in what's going on as Guy is in his son. Hence, unceremonious, and hence, heart-breaking. The Dardenne brothers have seen a lot of the kind of everyday human villainy -- not the word they'd use, I'm sure, but I'm going to go ahead and use it -- that typically gets blown up to fit movie screens by most filmmakers, and they know how to depict the Guys of the world with almost unbearable precision, nor, usually, do they offer any kind of satisfaction by way of comeuppance. In The Kid With a Bike, Samantha's demand that Guy tell Cyril, to his face, that Guy wants nothing more to do with him, a task Guy had previously attempted to pass on to Samantha, must count as the barest kind of triumph. Of course, this is followed up by a scene in which Cyril almost completely comes apart, and the beginning of the sad young boy's near devastation.

This is the fourth Dardenne brothers film I've seen, after La Promess, Rosetta, and The Child, and I've found that, overhwelming emotional component aside, there is something strikingly compelling about their work that I have a difficult time pinpointing -- that they are so unceremonious, or overtly stylish, both leads to this realization and provides some of the confusion. But thinking about The Kid With a Bike over the last day or so led me to also think about, curiously, Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows. One very specific scene in that film, to be clear, the one where Lino Ventura is in a transport plane, heading out on some French Resistance-type mission (please excuse me, the particulars are no longer clear, evidence only that I need to watch Army of Shadows again). In this scene, he's shown waiting. He also eats a sandwich. I don't claim this is a particularly long sequence, but I remember thinking as I watched it that this quiet bit of nothing, in terms of action, or even style, or even acting, really, was somehow no less compelling to me than anything else in that terrific film. The answer to this puzzle doesn't lay in context, because any goofball can put his hero on a plane and say "He's going to fight Godzilla!" and the stuff on the plane would still be barely sustainable as drama, or even filmmaking. I'm tempted to blame, or credit, alchemy.

Whatever it is, the Dardennes have it, too. There are sections of the film where, in order to get Cyril's story from one point to another, from, say, point A to point F, (G through Z to follow), the Dardennes refuse to cut out points B, C, D, or E, so that we see Cyril park his bike, go into Samantha's hair salon, above which they both live, talk to her about the errand he's just run, get quizzed a little on math, go upstairs, get a snack, and so on, or later ride his bike to the store, runs his errand, etc. Rides the bus to find his dad. Sits around. Does nothing. The Dardennes show it all, is the point (while still keeping the film to a lean 87 minutes, mind you), and yet I never felt the urge to quietly wish they'd simply get on with it. I think because, probably, that stuff is it, and so what you're watching them do is their version of getting on with it. It's the life the characters live in between the big moments that fascinate them, or trouble them -- anyway, they're equally interested in that stuff. There are long stretches of people just riding the bus in Rosetta, as I remember, and the viewer is left to wonder, when these people have a down moment for once in their goddamn lives, what they might be thinking about.

In Rosetta, there was some mystery to that question, but in The Kid With a Bike, I'm not sure there is much. Cyril is younger and more baffled than Rosetta, even if she was more lost, and so Cyril has locked onto one thing -- his dad. Failing that, any dad. And so yes, on a technical level I find the Dardenne brothers to be remarkably interesting filmmakers, but of course it's what this is all in aid of that finally kicks you in the stomach. The Kid With a Bike is the only one of their films that I've seen that almost made me quite angry. I won't say why, exactly, but it's a mix of things that are all compacted into the film's last couple of minutes. A thing happens, and that thing can branch off one of two ways. Two minor character (though at this particular moment they seemed pretty goddamn important) have a conversation that is entirely maddening -- not unbelievable, not maddening in that way, it didn't "take me out of the movie" or any such nonsense. But maddening. Then the thing that happened branches off in the way I hoped it would, and the ending of The Kid With a Bike became, I think, perfect. My TV screen was saved from having a brick heaved through it. Then I was left thinking about the ending that didn't happen, the one that would have destroyed my TV. I had to wonder, even in my relief, if that would have been a "bad" ending. It's occurring to me now that no, it wouldn't have been, but what it would have been was "an ending." In other posts, I've quoted the great short story writer Tobias Wolff to the effect that a good short story has to begin after the beginning and end before the ending. This is what the Dardennes excel at, and this what that other, nonexistent ending would have refuted. If the Dardennes are committed to filming what happens in the lives of people between the big moments, then The Kid With a Bike could only end the way it did, which is, it didn't end. It is perfect.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

There Is No Other Way

If your first viewing experience of White Zombie, Victor Halperin’s 1932 voodoo horror classic starring Bela Lugosi, is through the recent Kino Blu-ray release, then brother or sister, you don’t know what a gift you’ve been given. I first saw the film a few years back, from a Netflix copy of one of the many, many bootlegs that have been circulating for decades, bootlegs of prints that have been stomped on, crumpled up, had cigarettes put out on them, and probably also peed on. The image and sound were both so bad that I found this brisk, atmospheric, and thoroughly enjoyable 69-minute film kind of tough to sit through. Well, I’ve watched it again now on Blu-ray, and the difference is something close to the neighborhood of jaw-dropping. And by the way, if this disc does provide you with your first viewing, you should know that it contains two transfers: one is the as-pristine-as-we’re-probably-ever-gonna-get version I watched, and another that is described on the box as “raw.” Having not had a chance to look at that one yet, I couldn’t tell you precisely what you’d be in store for with it, but I’d have to guess even that one looks better than any previous video release, or “video release,” of White Zombie up until this point.

As for the film itself, well, what’s not to like? It’s quite basic, plot-wise, as you’d both expect and hope from a film that’s barely more than an hour long. You got your dewy couple, Neil and Madeleine, played by John Harron and Madge Bellamy, who are about to get married in Haiti, and plus Neil is set to take a job offered by Beaumont, a wealthy plantation owner played by Robert Frazer. What they don’t know is that the plantation owner has his eyes set on Madeleine, he loves her desperately you see, and he’s been in contact with an evil wizard or witch doctor or something named Murder Legendre, played by Lugosi, who uses some mysterious potion to, he claims, raise the dead – turn them into zombies – and make them do his bidding. Probably before going any further, I should point out again that Lugosi plays a character here whose first name is “Murder.” I don’t recall anything in the film that implied this was a boyhood nickname, which means his mom probably held her freshly born son in swaddling clothes, close to her breast, beaming at this new life she and her loving husband had created, and said “Let’s call him Murder!” Or it was from a baby name book or something. Either way, I can practically hear the schoolyard taunts: “Haw haw haw, yer name means to deliberately and maliciously take the life of another human being! Haw haw haw!” “Aw geez, lemme alone, you guys!” Etc. What chance did he have, is my point.

So, Beaumont conspires with Legendre to feed some of his zombie poison to Madeleine, which they succeed in doing. Hence, she is the “white zombie,” Legendre’s other zombies being native to Haiti. As I say, it’s all very brisk and to the point, and quite beautifully shot. Or it alternates between ordinary, let’s-get-this done shooting, and atmospheric beauty. Check out, for instance, the classic camera move through Legendre’s mill, populated entirely by blank-faced and silent zombies, which is about as good as this sort of thing gets, by which I mean it’s great. And while Frank Thompson, who provides a commentary track to the Kino disc, is kind of down on all of the acting in the film that was not provided by Lugosi, I think he’s being a touch unfair (a line is flubbed by John Crawthorn in a scene with Harron, and it's rolled with by both actors, which at the very least shows professionalism). Frazer’s rather good, I think, and one of the best scenes in the film involves Frazer and Lugosi sitting at a table, late in the film, and…well, this is sort of a turning point in the story, but suffice it to say, Frazer’s asked to sell something very specific here, and he sells it. Lugosi, too, and the thing about Lugosi that I find interesting is that he was frequently at his best when he was in extremis. That can mean in the emotional high-wire sense of, say, the end of The Black Cat, or it can mean the very far end of the scale of evil, which he’s at least very close to here, in his role as a voodoo witch doctor named Murder. In all honesty, I don’t tend to think very much of Lugosi – in my experience, his performance in Bride of the Monster isn’t a far cry from the work he put into most of his films. But in these early days (and in his rather sad performance in The Body Snatcher, which is a different sort of thing), he could do evil without breaking a sweat. If Karloff’s villains often had a moral complexity to them, even just a smidge, Lugosi was more likely to play a fairly uncomplicated form of horrible, and he did so with a lot of confidence, and if not actual glee, then at least a fair enough simulacrum. One of the results of this kind of performance by Lugosi is that it’s that much more satisfying for the audience when whoever Lugosi’s play has that smug, satisfied, blood-sucking grin wiped off his stupid evil face. Which is bound to happen eventually.

White Zombie is also, of course, known as the first zombie film, or anyway the first zombie film anybody knows about. As everybody knows, these zombies, and also the zombies in Lewton and Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie, and others, are closer to the traditional, and original, voodoo zombie myth than what we all now automatically think of when we hear the word “zombie.” I’m still unclear how it happened, that Romero fully intended his creatures to be called and thought of as ghouls, because eating the flesh of the living is the kind of thing that ghouls do, but now they're called zombies anyway, even though eating the flesh of the living is NOT the kind of thing that zombies do. As a result, the voodoo zombie film is pretty much finished, outside of a few shots here and there, most prominently by Wes Craven with The Serpent and the Rainbow. This is a shame. Thanks a lot, nerds.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Please Enjoy

Tomorrow, on Tuesday February 5, Criterion will release to DVD and Blu-ray Keisuke Kinoshita's The Ballad of Narayama. When the title was first announced by Criterion a few months ago, I was briefly excited because I thought it was Shohei Imamura's 1983 remake, a film I had seen and enjoyed in college, and which I'd been wanting to see again ever since*. It took me probably less than a minute of intent observation to realize that no, this wasn't Imamura's film, but another, earlier take on the source material, a novel by Shichiro Fukazawa, from 1958. "Oh great, so there's no boobs in this one, is what you're saying," I think I probably thought. But I was intrigued anyway, because the core story (and boy I'd like to be able to read that Fukazawa novel) is a queasily fascinating one, as it deals with the ancient Japanese ritual of ubasute -- the abandoning by a family of their elderly in the wilderness, where they will certainly die, thereby somewhat easing the crush of poverty. For a little while anyway. My memory of the Imamura film isn't that sharp, but I remember it being somewhat wild and nasty and irreverent and weird, which is not to say callous, about the whole thing, this being Imamura, and I could only assume that was his deal -- whatever Keisuke Kinoshita was going to bring to the story, I surmised, it probably wouldn't be that.

And no indeed, it is not. All Kinoshita did with his The Ballad of Narayama is he made one of the most gorgeous, most heartbreaking, most singularly moving and stylistically bold and blind-sidingly wonderful films I have ever seen. My realization that the film I was watching was actually that good was accompanied by a mix of excitement (tempered with melancholy, if you prefer, given the subject matter, but come on, movies this good are exciting) and chagrin, the latter because prior to The Ballad of Narayama, I basically had no idea who Kinoshita was. I'd heard about Twenty-Four Eyes, but didn't know who made it, and probably more importantly I've never seen it. "We don't know what we don't know" is pretty goddamn on the money, I'd say. I don't necessarily regard my ignorance here as a bad thing -- it's not hard to view the whole situation in a positive light, because now I get to watch other Kinoshita movies for the first time. But it was shocking in any case. Criterion does this from time to time, actually; they'll entice you with the big-title releases, like, say, Carlos, and then smack you upside the head with The Phantom Carriage. We must be ever vigilant.

To some degree, the film is presented as a kabuki play, though from what very, very little I know about that form, it's not that exactly -- the actors don't wear any garish makeup, for example. But The Ballad of Narayama does pull from theater, with sets that shift, almost in full view, to make way for the next scene, and narration sung in the joruri style, which, I've learned, is typically used in Japanese puppet theater. Kinoshita also uses plainly artificial sets, painted-backdrop skies, and set illumination that sharpen down into spotlights, or blaze through a red gel when blood is spilled. The effect of all this, if I may simplify it egregiously, is not unlike what an American audience would be used to seeing from the self-consciously melodramatic style of, say, Douglas Sirk. I say this, however, while acknowledging that The Ballad of Narayama is purely Japanese, with no apparent interest in doing anything that would make any of this go down more easily in the West. Which is maybe why this particular film has, up until now, been so hard to see, I don't know, but there's something almost exhilarating about watching a film from a culture very much unlike the one I know, and realizing "This film doesn't care about me, or if I 'get' it, or if its very Japanese-ness will ring false, or weird, to me." To do anything else would be to make a completely different film. I make the Douglas Sirk comparison only to highlight that, like Sirk's films, the artificiality of The Ballad of Narayama is not intended to separate the audience from what's happening in the story, even if that turns out to be the result for some people, but to heighten the experience, and to convey emotion in a way that strict realism couldn't hope to.
That may sound counterintuitive, but oh well. That's the way it is, folks. All I know is, it's devestating to watch the film's central character, an old woman named Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) who, as the film begins, is very close to the age when she will be expected to allow herself to be carried to, and abandoned to die in, Narayama, wander sweetly through this cruel circumstance, so bound by tradition that she claims to welcome her end, to the point that it falls on her to comfort her own son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi, giving an agonizingly sad performance) who will have to actually carry her in a basket and leave her on the mountain, the theatrical, almost storybook presentation turns this awful, long-gone ritual into something immediate, as though whoever first thought of ubasute, or perhaps more to the point, whoever first told a story about ubasute, had the foresight to understand that however much the particulars might change centuries down the line, the basics never would, so we might as well hammer our metaphors into place now. Because make no mistake, the hopelessness of dealing with and caring for and torturing oneself over what to do with and about an aging parent is all over every inch of The Ballad of Narayama, never more so than in the film's most quietly sad moment, when Tatsuhei lies back on the floor as his family, including his mother, talk casually about what is in essence Orin's upcoming death, utterly unable to embrace tradition at the same time that it's trying to claw his heart to shreds.

There is so much more I could say about The Ballad of Narayama -- Orin's "33 demon teeth," the horror-film tinge of the sequence that "solves" that issue, or the relentless, creeping inescapability of Rokuzaemon Kineya's guitar score (as differentiated from Matsunosuke Nozawa's joruri accompaniment), or how this story -- and this element I do remember, to some degree, from Imamura's film -- starkly contrasts, to extremes, the various ways a family may regard their elder members, or, for that matter, the various ways the elder members, or you, may face their, or your, death. When the time comes, I mean. Orin's sweet acceptance may be a mask beaten into shape by tradition, in other words, and despairing as that possibility is, we're also shown a character who doesn't even have that, who has less than nothing, and so perhaps Kinoshita regards Orin as a figure to be envied, in a sense. Or also -- and this really is a dead end, as far as my purposes for today are concerned -- the idea of narration in films, and how film schools, or screenwriting classes and books and guides, try to drum into people's heads arbitrary rules of what to do or not do, even if what is being degraded is a time-honored narrative tool. Like I say, though, that's some whole other thing entirely. What's important, your one takeaway, is that Keisuki Kinoshita's The Ballad of Narayama is a masterpiece. See it.